Jesus’ Death and Resurrection – Timing of the Spring Feasts

Jesus’ Death and Resurrection

Note: The following Post is taken from an upcoming book by Joseph Lenard entitled Mysteries of Jesus’ Life Revealed—His Birth, Death,  Resurrection, and Ascensions. For an overview and complete chapter listing of this fascinating study, click here.

 The Spring Feasts

Understanding the timing of the Spring Feasts of the Lord (Passover, Unleavened Bread, First Fruits and Pentecost, as presented in Leviticus 23:1-22) is the third puzzle piece in our quest to determine the correct date of Jesus’ death.

Passover and Unleavened Bread

The timing of the days in Nisan for Passover and the first day of Unleavened Bread is straightforward. From the Leviticus text, we learn that Passover is to be observed on Nisan 14, with the first day of the seven-day festival of the Feast of Unleavened Bread beginning on the next day, Nisan 15.

How have Passover and Unleavened Bread been celebrated in Israel through the years? The Jews in Israel today do not follow the God-given instructions recorded by Moses in Leviticus 23. Rather than having Passover on the 14th of Nisan and the first day of Unleavened Bread on the 15th, they mix the two Feasts together. This was also the case in the time of Jesus, as described in the Gospel accounts.

Today, when Jews sit down to eat the Passover meal on the first night of Pesach (Passover), the date always falls on the first night of Chag HaMarzot (Feast of Unleavened Bread), which God ordained to fall on the 15th of the first month of the religious calendar (Nisan/Abib). Consequently, the Passover meal for virtually all of the Jewish people has been merged with the first night of Unleavened Bread, even though the scriptures clearly prescribe that Unleavened Bread and Passover are distinct festivals, with 24 hours separating the two. Only the Samaritans and the Karaite Jews still celebrate Passover correctly on Nisan 14.

According to Avi Ben Mordechai, the Jewish people developed a work-around for this problem of merging the two Feasts by adding an eighth day to the seven day festival of Unleavened Bread. In so doing, Judaism violates the stipulation of God to keep two separate festivals.

How and when did the Jewish people start combining the two festivals of Passover and Unleavened Bread? Avi Ben Mordechai provides the following answer:

It appears that the two festivals, Pesach and Chag HaMatzot [Feast of Unleavened Bread], were kept 24 hours apart from each other until sometime prior to the first century and the days of Archelaus, royal successor to King Herod. This is understood from the historical record of Yosef ben Mattiyahu (Josephus), as recorded below:

. . . Now, upon the approach of that feast of unleavened bread which the law of their fathers had appointed for the Jews at this time, which feast is called the Passoverand is a memorial of their deliverance out of Egypt (when they offer sacrifices with great alacrity; and when they are required to slay more sacrifices in number than at any other festival). . .

Avi Ben Mortechai concludes that the merging of the two festivals occurred after the death of Herod the Great (in -1 BC), and therefore was the norm during the year in which Jesus was crucified. This is clearly indicated by Josephus above wherein he states of the Feast of Unleavened Bread: “which feast is called the Passover.” Luke 22:1 also refers to this mixing of the two festivals:

Now the Feast of Unleavened Bread, which is called the Passover, was approaching.”

So there is no doubt that the mixing of the two festivals was ongoing at the time of the crucifixion of Jesus.

How could this un-scriptural mixing of the two festivals have survived for so long, extending even into modern times? The answer is tradition! It appears that Jewish tradition can be as un-scriptural as some Christian church tradition, as we have discussed in earlier Posts.

According to Avi Ben Mordechai, Jesus would have correctly followed the pattern of Pesach (Passover) given to Moses – after all, the Messiah was a prophet like unto Moses (Deuteronomy 18:15). In the days of Moses, the Israelites slaughtered the Pesach lamb 24 hours before their departure from Egypt, at the beginning of the 14th of Nisan/Aviv, as the sun was declining in the west (beyn ha’arbaim, “in-between the evening times” of the 13th and 14th). Often overlooked in the study of these matters is the commandment from God to Moses and the Hebrews to stay in the house in which they ate the Passover lamb until morning (Exodus 12:22) of Nisan 14. Thereafter, during the daylight hours of Nisan 14, the Hebrews assembled in Rameses and received from the Egyptians the goods given to them. Then, on the night of the 15th, a full day later, they went out from the Egypt. (Deuteronomy 16:1; Numbers 33:3)

Therefore, the real Pesach, per the Torah, is supposed to occur 24 hours prior to the Unleavened Bread festival.

First Fruits and Feast of Weeks (Pentecost)

The time for the third of the Spring Feasts, the Feast of First Fruits, was not so easily determined. This is because it was not assigned a specific date, as were Passover and the first day of Unleavened Bread. Although it was not given a particular calendar date, Leviticus states that it occurs on thefirst day after the Sabbath.” (Leviticus 23: 9–11)

Since the dates for Passover and Unleavened Bread are based on a lunar calendar, they are floating dates that can occur on any day of the week of the first month of Nisan/Abib. However, God commanded in Leviticus that the Feast of First Fruits must consistently fall on the first day after the weekly Sabbath, i.e., our Sunday, during the week of Unleavened Bread. God decreed that First Fruits must always fall on Sunday, no matter on what day of the week Passover (Nisan 14) and the first day of Unleavened Bread (Nisan 15) fall.

But did God mean the weekly Sabbath (Saturday), or was he referring to some other Sabbath (“High Sabbath”), which can occur on other days during the annual Feast Days of the Lord (Leviticus 23:7, 24–25, 28, 32, 36, 39)?  The official Roman church position – which has been passed down as tradition to the church today – is that First Fruits was always on the day following the “High Sabbath” of the first day of Unleavened Bread. Therefore, Passover was held on the 14th of Nisan (Leviticus 23:5),the first day of Unleavened Bread was on the 15th of Nisan (Leviticus 23:6), and the Feast of First Fruits was assumed to always be on the 16th of Nisan.

This position of the three day link between Passover and First Fruits was accepted by the Pharisees in the time of Christ, by Josephus (a Pharisee) in his writings and, later, by the Roman Catholic Church.

However, the Sadducees and, later, the Karaite Jews understood “the day following the Sabbath” to refer to the first weekly Sabbath (Saturday) which followed the first day of Unleavened Bread. With this interpretation, we find that the number of days between Passover and First Fruits could vary from year to year; and there is not a three day linkage between them. This finding is critical to the chronology of Christ’s Passion Week. The Sadducees – who controlled the Temple worship protocol – may have been incorrect on several of their teachings (such as their disbelief in a literal physical resurrection of the dead); but in this interpretation of scripture, I believe that they held the correct position.

Other theologians favor the interpretation of First Fruits always being on Nisan 17, “on the day after the Sabbath” (Leviticus 23:11 NIV), which would place Passover and the crucifixion on Thursday, with First Fruits still falling on Sunday of the week of the crucifixion.

While I agree with First Fruits being on Sunday for the week of the crucifixion, I believe that both positions are incorrect in the chronology of Passover, Unleavened Bread and First Fruits. I believe that First Fruits is neither always on either Nisan 16 or 17 but, rather, is “on the day following the [weekly] Sabbath,” which allows for days to separate the first day of Unleavened Bread and First Fruits.

In summary, the scriptural reasons supporting the occurrence of First Fruits on the day after the weekly Sabbath (Sunday) are the following:

In Leviticus 23, God states that Passover will be Nisan 14 and the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread will be the 15th of Nisan. But He states that the Feast of First Fruits will be “on the day after the Sabbath” (Leviticus 23:11 NIV). It seems if God intended First Fruits to always be on the 16th, He would have stated this, as He did in a similar way for Passover and Unleavened Bread. If He intended the Sabbath so referenced to be the weekly Sabbath, which I think is supported by other Scripture, He would have stated it exactly as He did. This would put First Fruits on a different date each year, making it impossible to assign it to a specific numerical day of Nisan. We see no problem with this as long as – in the year of Christ’s crucifixion – First Fruits fell on a day which met the prophecy of Christ being “three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” after his death on the cross.

Another evidence of the weekly Sabbath being the reference for figuring the date for First Fruits is the mechanism mentioned in Leviticus 23 for calculating the “counting of the Omar” to arrive at the Feast of Pentecost. “The Lord said to Moses, . . . ‘From the day after the Sabbath, the day you brought the sheaf of the wave offering (First Fruits), count off seven full weeks. Count off fifty days up to the day after the seventh Sabbath (Sunday) and then present an offering of new grain (Pentecost) . . .” (Leviticus 23:15–16 NIV).

The references to the starting point being “the day after the Sabbath” and to the seven Sabbaths are clearly references, I believe, to the weekly Sabbaths, because there were not seven consecutive High Sabbaths (as the first day of Unleavened Bread is called) in arriving at the Feast of Weeks (Pentecost). The “seventh Sabbath” mentioned in Leviticus 23:16 is clearly referencing the seventh weekly Sabbath to arrive at the Feast of Weeks (Pentecost); and the day after the seventh Sabbath” is the first day of the week, Sunday. Accordingly, I believe that both First Fruits and Pentecost always fall on Sunday.

Accepting that First Fruits is not always on the 16th of Nisan – the day following the first day of Unleavened Bread – but is actually the day after the weekly Sabbath of the week of Unleavened Bread supports our chronology of events for the death and resurrection of Jesus.

An additional fact regarding the Feast of First Fruits is that at sunset – the very start of the Sunday of First Fruits – the High Priest went into a sacred field of barley at the base of the Mount of Olives and cut free from the earth (reap) a sheaf of barley, which he then waved before the Lord as an offering of first fruits (Leviticus 23:9–11).

The Temple ceremony of the waving of the barley occurred on the following morning of First Fruits. The waving of barley symbolized the first fruits of the expected Spring harvest, the newness of life, and the Lord’s blessing, and the barley offering ascended into heaven when burned on the altar (1 Corinthians 15:20, 23). On this day, 49 days were to be counted to determine The Feast of Weeks or Pentecost (Leviticus 23:15–16), which also always falls on Sunday (Pentecost is 50 days from the weekly Sabbath preceding First Fruits).

As the barley sheaf was “cut free from the earth” at the beginning of the Feast of First Fruits, Jesus rose from the grave and subsequently became a “wave offering” of blessing to the people, a parallel to the Temple ceremony by the High Priest in which he raised the barley toward heaven on Sunday morning.

We make the case in The Last Shofar! (pp. 110-112), as well as in the upcoming Post, Two Ascensions, that this ceremony by the High Priest in the Temple on Sunday morning coincided with the non-witnessed first ascension of Jesus to heaven on the day of His resurrection (to present Himself to the Father as the first fruits of the resurrection). The later second ascension of Jesus to heaven was the public ascension witnessed by the disciples 40 days following this resurrection (Acts 1:3). E. W. Bullinger affirms this chronology for the resurrection of Christ and states:

“Thus, the Resurrection of the Lord took place at our Saturday sunset, or thereabouts, on ‘the third day’; cp. ‘after three days’ (Matt. 27:63; Mark 8:31).”

The importance of this third Puzzle Piece will become more apparent as we examine the other pieces of the puzzle. I realize that the content of this Post is a bit more complicated and difficult to follow than the content in most of the other Posts. I suggest that a second reading might be helpful!

Note: In my next Post I will discuss the fourth of the eleven “puzzle pieces” for the topic of Jesus’ Death, Resurrection and Ascensions.  This “piece” discusses the inspection of the Passover lamb.